Cork’s prosperity is and will be built on its ability to generate and to attract capital and talent, writes Pat Ledwidge
The morning of May 31, 2019, will be very significant for Cork’s citizens as the long-mooted boundary extension will come into effect.
This boundary extension will increase the area of the city from 37sq km to 187sq km, and its population will grow to roughly 210,000.
Also importantly, on May 24, the electors of this new city select the 31 city councillors that will guide Cork’s development for the next five pivotal years. These are exciting times for Cork. It is imperative that wise strategic choices are made over the coming years.
Most people would agree that the city must grow in accordance with the principles of sustainable development. Sustainable development must involve concurrent progress in the economic, social and environmental spheres.
Economic prosperity is necessary in order to accumulate the resources that provide for social equity whilst at the same time reversing current negative environmental trends.
However, sustainable development will require significant changes in how Cork’s citizens live; go about their daily business; and in how the city is organised and delivers its services. Achieving sustainable development will involve difficult choices, adjustments and changed behaviours to address the real challenges posed by climate change.
Furthermore, the prosperity of Cork, and its citizens, will depend its ability to compete successfully in international arenas. Here change is relentless and unavoidable.
Rapid developments in areas such as big data analytics, machine learning, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and robotics will produce changes in the world of work; in how people live their lives and interact with each other; in leisure activities and personal expectations; in the design of homes and workplaces; and in how one physically, culturally and intellectually navigates between all of the above.
Cork’s prosperity is and will be built on its ability to generate and to attract capital and talent, both of which are highly mobile internationally. This is the principal challenge facing the city and it must be understood in order to be met successfully.
In this world, there is no place to hide; neither Cork nor Ireland will be granted an exemption from change by the rest of the world. That is not possible for a small country, and a small city, on the extreme western periphery of Europe, which is itself a peninsula of Asia.
Presently, Cork is succeeding in this competition; according to the 2016 Census, Cork’s non-Irish population was 13% and it was the most successful area in attracting new residents.
If Cork, or Ireland, chooses to resist change, or to retreat from the opportunities and threats offered by these changes and from increasing globalisation, its prospects will suffer as will the opportunities for its citizens. There are lessons from history.
A short book, Preventing the Future: Why was Ireland so poor for so long? by Tom Garvin (former professor of politics in University College Dublin), charts the unwise national policy choices of the years from the adoption of the Constitution in 1937 until the late 1950s, a period of “economic, intellectual and cultural stagnation”.
This is not to suggest that Cork cannot influence its future or futures. However, it must always take cognisance of its external operating environment when preparing the strategies that will shape its internal operating environment.
The exciting challenge for Cork’s citizens is that they can influence their future by the choices they make and how they decide to live their lives. In the period to 2040, the population of Cork City is projected to expand by a further 115,000 to roughly 325,000.
Project Ireland 2040 states that 50% of this population must be accommodated within existing built-up areas and it also promises public funding to help achieve this target. So, what kind of future will come into being for Cork?
Cork has many positives. It offers a superb quality of life, even for people earning the average industrial wage. It has a 40-year integrated metropolitan planning process, which Government has recently adopted as the model for the country’s other metropolitan areas.
This metropolitan planning process has evolved with the times and its latest manifestation, Cork 2050 (2017), provides a clear pathway to mid-century within the context of Project Ireland 2040. Furthermore, Project Ireland 2040 sets out a 10-year funding framework to 2027.
In this strategic context, Cork is also clearly Ireland’s only second-tier city (Belfast being in another jurisdiction). Research shows that, in certain respects, second-tier cities can be more competitive that capital cities.
The Government has identified Cork as the city with the greatest growth potential for the period up to 2040. To these positives can be added Cork’s wonderfully strong urban character and its very impressive urban setting, where the River Lee splits to form two attractive channels (the site of the original medieval city) before reuniting on entry to Cork Harbour.
The combination of water, built form, hills and light provides the backdrop and environs in which the city’s citizens live out their lives. The last, but most important asset, of Cork is its people. Their intelligence, industry, community spirit, tolerance and prioritisation of learning should allow the city to respond to the challenges ahead.
It is not always realised that 10% of the metropolitan area’s population (320,000 people) are students in UCC and CIT. Cork also has a significant post-Leaving Cert sector which is fostered by the Cork Education and Training Board. Cork’s Learning City Project is internationally recognised as a model of good practice and Cork is also a WHO-recognised Healthy City.
Counterbalancing these positives are negatives. There are some threats that Cork can mitigate; some will require the assistance of Government or the EU; and some must just be endured.
However, the more strategic Cork is in its approach, the better it can build resilience to external threats. An immediate challenge facing the city is housing and, in particular, the lack of private provision.
My understanding of effective states is that when there is market failure, the Government acts. Given the growth expected in Ireland and the importance of accommodation in attracting talent and thus capital, I would suggest that housing should be treated as a public good and that the Government undertakes a fundamental assessment of the protection granted to private property in the 1937 Constitution, to ascertain if it is inhibiting equitable housing provision.
In parallel, the Government should reassess the recommendations of the 1973 Kenny Report, as many currently observe that the price of development land is an impediment to housing provision. The most important business of a republic is the welfare of its people.
Its constitution, legislation and regulations should facilitate this, not the opposite. It is sobering to reflect that two demands from the Land War of the late 19th Century, fixity of tenure and fair rent, are still being sought by so many households today. Resolving the housing issue is fundamental if the additional 115,000 people targeted for 2040 are to be accommodated appropriately.
Other issues that must be addressed are achieving a substantial shift to sustainable modes of transport; responsive public service delivery; and maintaining competitiveness and attractiveness. All are being progressed but will require a coalition of interests and national support to be successful.
An attractive city may seem frivolous to some, but it is extremely important. The future is increasingly urban and attractive cities retain talented people. Investment and economic activity now actively seek out the locations that attract talent.
In previous decades, talent followed capital and this has now largely been reversed. However, success in the economic realm must be utilised to reduce socio-economic disadvantage and social exclusion, with a constant focus on access and opportunity. This is how society is strengthened.
For Cork, a prosperous future is tied into change. Policy choices matter. Sometimes, it may take decades for policy impacts to become apparent, but they will eventually be felt.
As Irish Examiner columnist Gerard Howlin recently proposed: “But, if in a republic you put responsibility where it lies, on the people, you would have to abandon your old tropes about failed republics and tell home truths”.
In a democracy, the people decide, but they also must be mature enough to take responsibility for their decisions. Cork’s future is tied to the strategic choices that are made in the present.
Pat Ledwidge is the former director of strategic planning and economic development with Cork City Council
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